Free Guy

I just played a game of online Asteroids to warm up for this review. It was on the Atari site and sponsored by AARP. Free Guy is a film that will either appeal to the 14 year old in you or your actual 14 year old. It’s a cross between Her, War Games and It’s a Wonderful Life. The film is loud and brash and original if not in plot, then at least in the graphics department (excluding the direct but well-timed references to Star Wars and Marvel) since it is not based on an existing game —or even amusement park ride!

The film doesn’t really poke fun at itself in the sense of breaking the fourth wall. However, it does have a point to make about breaking out of how you think your life is supposed to be. This theme will be obvious to those of us who know what AARP stands for but I think it’s a good message for people of any age.

Speaking of graphics, the special effects were flawless and fun.  If you are the type of person who finds yourself playing a video game and trying to say, land a fighter plane on the Golden Gate Bridge…or figure out where the edge of the simulated environment is…and try to hack it, you will probably enjoy this film too.

The other interesting aspect for those who get into metaphysics and ontology…when is something real? If an AI character is evolving on its own and believes it is feeling, is it feeling? This question motivates Act III and is covered specifically by the NPCs (non-player characters) themselves in a strong scene between Reynolds’ Blue Shirt Guy and Lil Rel Howery’s Buddy the security guard.

This isn’t a totally dude-centric film either (though there is a very big dude in it). There is a strong female character, Molotov Girl, played convincingly by Jodie Comer. Finally, Ryan Reynolds, this time as producer and star, is able to unleash every facial expression imaginable. Overall, this film certainly had its moments and I enjoyed it.

Stillwater

I might be late to the party but Matt Damon is a great actor. I think anyone could do the Bourne Identity stuff. Is that even acting? That’s a lot of hours in the gym so you can look like your stunt double. But Stillwater. That’s acting. The story does get trying at times. Forced suspense that carries on for too long. But there are more times where you find yourself asking, “Where is this going?”, in a good way.  The character of Virginie, played by Camille Cottin, who was outstanding in the Netflix series, “Call Your Agent!”, was a strong counterpoint and anchor Damon’s character Bill. But the scenes of Bill and Virginie’s child Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) goofing around, sharing language and advices and just playing the roles of a parent and child, absolutely stole the movie. They weren’t cliched scenes. They were real life and funny. Bittersweet really.

Which is how I would characterize this film. The characters are all flawed, very human. And even if the story twists seem improbable at times, the feeling of the place, in this case Marseille, and the everyday lives of the characters come to life. You can imagine yourself there. You can understand why the “fuck-up” can’t stop being one, though he is trying everything he absolutely can not to be. You can understand the philosophy of acceptance that the character of Allison (Abigail Breslin), tries to explain to her Dad from behind bars.  “It’s not about justice, it’s about peace.” 

I was surprised at the complexity in the story and of the characters, the humor in the film and the drama. A trip to Stillwater is definitely thought provoking and time well spent. 

The Green Knight

What follows is a guest post from the Good Doctor himself. For a Stoopid American, he sure knows a lot about English literature!

Dark: And so Sir Gawain sets off, traversing forests and mountains to find The Green Knight, where he meets a talking fox who warns him: 'You will find no mercy, no happy end'

The Gawain doctor is in—and like most doctors, he’s running a little behind.

I should probably start with the patient’s question, which was about how faithful Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to the 14th-Century poem of the same name. It’s not particularly faithful, but since we’re not 14th-Century readers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is deeply engaged with the original poem in ways that are probably more interesting than would be the case in a more direct adaptation. Knowing the poem will give you a framework and additional material to think about, but it won’t “explain” the film or leave you with nothing to do but listen to some English professor carping about what the director misunderstood or didn’t get right.

The original poem explores the themes of courtesy and mirth, reflecting on how a society genuinely inspired by the medieval Christian understanding of those virtues might operate (and on how the actual medieval world falls short). David Lowery’s movie has almost no mirth, and courtesy always turns out to be a deceptive mask (as it sometimes is in the original as well). It feels more like the world of Beowulf or Game of Thrones than the refined and civilized world of the movie’s source material.

Fittingly, Lowery’s Sir Gawain is a flawed everyman rather than an innocent embodiment of courtesy. He has a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend, and his drunken excess is always set in a brothel or a tavern to distinguish it from the equally-inebriated, Christian-sanctioned mirth of the original poem. I think this revision is probably designed to make Gawain a relatable character, allowing modern film-goers to identify with his trials and tribulations over the course of the film, in much the way that medieval readers were invited to identify with the courteous but inexperienced Gawain of the poem.

At the same time, Lowery nicely captures the sense in the original poem that things are rarely as simple as they seem, and that forces at the edge of our understanding—if not entirely beyond it—are at work shaping the course of events and giving them meaning. His approach is more in the form of a fever dream than the subtle and teasing allegorical undertone of the original poem, but it feels properly medieval in its rejection of naturalist or realistic plot in favor of symbolic or allegorical meaning.

There are definitely easter eggs for readers of the original poem. There is a brief mention of the five virtues, an important set piece from the original poem in which Sir Gawain’s shield is allegorized for its “endless knot” pentangle front and painting of Mary inside. When that shield is cracked and destroyed in the opening episode of his journey, it confirms what you had probably already guessed about how far those medieval virtues would get you in the movie’s world.

The film also follows the basic structure of the original poem: the Green Knight’s visit to Arthur’s court, fast-forwarding to Gawain’s departure a year later, a Christmas over-nighter at a mysterious castle, and a final conclusion of Sir Gawain’s “game” with the Green Knight. Readers familiar with the poem will find significant resonances with the critically important castle episode immediately prior to that final encounter, and may be particularly interested in the decision to cast the same actress as the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold and the lady of the house.

The final confrontation with the Green Knight is as confusing and counter-intuitive as in the original, but works to a different end. My own reading is that, where the original invites the recognition of our fallen nature in even the most virtuous of Christian heroes, Lowery is more interested in revealing the systemic injustice of patriarchy. Ironically, Lowery’s Gawain must pass his test if he is to succeed, whereas the 14th-Century Gawain can become a hero despite his all-too-human failings. But there is plenty of material (friendly robbers, lady ghosts, talking foxes, earth giants) to fuel other interpretations, which is one of the things that makes this movie so rewarding.

If you can figure out what those creepy giants are up to, you’re a smarter reader than I am. Len tells me that they’re Czechoslovakian anime, and who am I to disagree?

The Green Knight

We rallied the troops and hit The Green Knight on opening night, the new cinematic adaptation of the classic 14th-century poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” So the big question you are asking, I’m certain, is whether the film is faithful to the poem?

And my answer, of course, is that you are asking the wrong guy.

There is so much about this movie that I don’t have answers to, starting with who is this Green Knight? Is it the rocky, green-tinged shrub guy, or is it the inexperienced Gawain himself? Does his mother actually like him? Is she a lady or is she a tramp? What do you think happened to that little guy? And shouldn’t King Arthur be perhaps just a little more buff?

So L&D called a doctor for this emergency. Not an M.D., of course, but the type of doctor with command of lyric poetry and pop culture (!). So keep an eye on this space.

Meanwhile, a few of my unvarnished observations: Firstly, this is really great entertainment. Great story, great acting, great intrigue, great fun. It is not Hollywood fare in that you can’t really see where this one is going. And it is not Hollywood fare in that once you get where this one is going, it is unlikely you will be able to sort it out neatly. Yes, there is magic and there are spirits and there are even a handful of mushrooms for you and your handsome friend, so that doesn’t add to the clarity. But my advice to anyone overwhelmed by mushrooms, as always, is to stay put and see what happens.

Secondly, you should see this before it gets displaced by all of the (would-be) August blockbusters. Ugh. If it sticks around, I will see it again. Grab a friend and go.

And, finally, as we were watching, we started a running list of films that this one draws upon, including (but not limited to), Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Fantastic Planet, Midsommar, The Last Temptation of Christ, Phantom Thread, Cruella, Guardians of the Galaxy (I or II), and I’m sure this list will continue to grow.

Big ups from the entire crowd. It’s highly likely you will find this on the year-end list…

One Year Hence.

Presumed Innocent

What a colossal blunder

My wife and I took in the 1990-something classic, Presumed Innocent, this evening. The big takeaway is that Raul Julia dominates the movie in the role of Rusty’s defense attorney, Sandy Stern. In hindsight, I suppose I knew this because the only parts of the movie I remember involve Julia. Otherwise, it is an interesting and somewhat complicated plotline, and I actually had to pay attention to keep up.

A couple of big moments: In a brilliant cinematic moment, Stern stands behind the prosecutors during his cross, and we get to see the DA and ADA’s reactions as he dismantles their witness. The scene where he undresses Dr. “Painless” Kumaga bests the climax of A Few Good Men, for sure. It must be nice to see a script like this come your way.

Bonus: Rusty’s kid is a Packers fan. Who knew?

Recommended.

H/T Hecubus (Spoiler Alert!)

Old

Approximate Taco Bell Drive-Thru Line, 9:58 p.m., July 22, 2021

If you’ve seen the previews to the new M. Night Shyamalan feature, Old, then you pretty much know how the movie is going to unfold. There are some metaphors about the existential dread of aging, not particularly good ones, and some not terribly well fleshed-out antagonists. The beach is lovely, though. And although you know how it unfolds, what actually happens will perhaps surprise you.

The ending wraps things up in a jiff!

This is not must see material, but if you must see a movie, you might consider this one. The summer release schedule has seemingly hit the point of tedious high-budget action films, and spooky would-be horror films. That would perhaps explain a rather full theater on opening night, but my guess is that the legs of this release are not long.

Heading over in the pre-10 p.m. hour, I did note that the Taco Bell sign was not illuminated. Yet, cars at the drive thru snaked well out of the parking lot and into the street. The tension between ridiculously low-priced fast food and the capacity to staff a restaurant that offers ridiculously low-priced fast food remains strong in the Fox Valley.

An Origin Ride

Black Widow is fun ride. Maybe like the new riverboat movie, Jungle Cruise, it will become an actual ride at Disneyland. But unlike that ride, I mean movie, it wasn’t a ride first. In any case, Black Widow boasts strong leading performances by Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame) and excellent action. The story includes women who kick ass all over the place and the highest caliber production value — except for the scene with the jail and even the avalanche stolen from War for the Planet of the Apes. They could have tried harder there. 

But it’s one of those kick up your feet, eat your popcorn, turn off your brain blockbuster summer movies. Another 200 million plus budget movie that will return over 500 million most likely. And it needs to. There were more plasterers listed in the credits than…than…you get it, they hired plasterers. 

This film did have a heart, did deal with family dynamics, with ethics and loyalty, with friendship. And had a sense of humor. All those good things. So it delivered on what you would expect, massive explosions for example and then some. Also, it’s simultaneously streaming on Disney+ but it’s a big movie that deserves a big screen.  

Floridian Inferno

Zola is a conundrum of sorts. In parts Midsommar and in others Spring Breakers, it’s an uncomfortable experience. The characters are two dimensional at best and even simple cut outs like a “fan” at a COVID era MLB game. It’s not totally surprising that the original screenplay inspiration was a tweetstorm. 

What I found refreshing and interesting about Zola was that the representations were flipped. If you’re sick and tired of the male gaze in film, welcome to the female gaze. There is more full-frontal dudity in this film than I can remember at the cinema…including one montage that featured an eye-brow raising well placed on-screen heart emoji graphic. The other element that Zola has going for it is suspense. Which way will this Floridian Dante’s Inferno break? Is it a social satire, a comedy, a horror nightmare, exploitation — somehow all and none of these at the same time?

I particularly enjoyed the brief POV driving musical interludes. Those segues kept establishing that music can set the emotional tone of a film, every time. One danger though in telling Zola’s story in such a minimalistic way is that the story of Derrek, played brilliantly by Nicholas Braun, who also shined in the powerful HBO series Succession, at times took over. Derrek was the one character played with real emotion. He was the fuck up, the hero, the only person who was in the story for something other than a good time and/or making a buck. And that’s odd for a film that is supposed to be telling the story of a strong female protagonist, which there was and which it does. But I’m left to wonder, did it inadvertently tell the story of Derrek even better? Like Dante in Inferno, Zola is an observer, traveling through these circles of misery, though it seems like a missed opportunity to find out more about her. She asks Derrek pointedly during one dramatic scene, “What do you see when you see me?” As an audience, we can only answer that in a superficial way. 

I do want to give a shout out to my old friend, Mike L. Germaine, who I worked on a few films with in the Bahamas back in the day. He’s a fantastic Key Grip and did a solid job here as usual, helping the cinematographer, Ari Wegner pull off strong visuals. And I’d be remiss not to note a stand out acting performance by Jason Mitchell, who also shined in Netfilx’s Mudbound

Ultimately, Zola ended for me just as the story seemed to be taking off or at least morphing into something else. There’s no neat ending here so the experience leaves you more with the impression that this was a filmic sketch based off an epic tweetstorm. You’ll have to manufacture your own ending but maybe that’s okay too. Ultimately, I did enjoy a movie with a different perspective than your typical megaplex offering.  

Rafiki

This is a great film, originally banned in Kenya and only released after my UCLA Film School friend, and Director of this film, Wanuri Kahiu sued the Kenyan government. According to Wikipedia, “On 21 September 2018, the Kenyan High Court lifted the ban on the film.” I was able to check this out at my local library here in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s also available on Amazon Prime, Hulu and Showtime. It’s a great story, with Capulet and Montague overtones and a scene reminiscent of a film that recently blew me away, David Lean’s, Ryan’s Daughter. There is a truly indelible, good natured human spirit that runs through this film and I highly recommend it to you.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

What makes a terrible movie terrible? Gratuitous violence? Maybe. One dimensional characters? Yes. Absurd situations like…the escape boat at the end of a dock? Again? …And again? Umm humm. Bulgaria? Check. Knockoff 007 storyline? Certainly doesn’t help. A Director who doesn’t know the actor can’t pronounce Fugazi? Likely. Great actors cashing checks for skating by?

The saddest part, feeding the movie making machine when it would be more interesting to just hear what those same great actors would have to say if you were having dinner with them at a restaurant? The truth from D. …I think perhaps it’s the sum of these with apologies to Bulgaria. I’m sure it’s a lovely place. Oh and I laughed a lot but maybe it was a laugh to keep from crying type of laugh. Or maybe the movies, like most of us at this moment, are just rusty in so many ways?

In any case, I’m looking forward to a real movie by Reynolds, Hayek, Jackson &/or Banderas in the near future. This one will be utterly forgotten. However, there were a couple of references to Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell’s “minor masterpiece,” Overboard (1987), which I’d like to check out.  Even a terrible movie, like a broken clock, is right twice a day.